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Browser engine forking isn't the end of the world

Glenn Fleishman | April 10, 2013
Announcements from browser makers last week may recall the bad old days of browser incompatibility, but this isn't IE6 all over again.

Designers and developers who had to create HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that conformed to specifications and that "validated"--that is, passed tests to confirm their compliance against a spec--could be found weeping in the darkest corners of taverns after finding, for the umpteenth time, that IE6 had barfed up an unrecognizable HTML ball. Some websites gave in to the IE-using majority, adding workarounds for IE 6's quirks to their carefully constructed standards-compliant pages. Microsoft further locked things down by allowing the use of ActiveX, a proprietary component for Web applications that was usable only in Windows, despite feeble attempts to port it to other platforms. (Corporations that developed ActiveX-based apps for in-house use during this period still lean heavily on the terrible troika of ActiveX, IE 6, and Windows XP.)

In 2003, Apple released Safari, built on top of what it called WebKit--a fork of the Linux-oriented KHTML project. In 2004, Mozilla released Firefox, based on a thoroughly overhauled Gecko engine it had inherited from Netscape. Four years later, Google's Chrome, also built on WebKit, emerged.

Browsers based on WebKit and Gecko were faster, produced better-looking and more-interactive pages, and had fewer security flaws when used with Windows. More important, Apple put Safari on every Mac; Google promoted Firefox in its ever-more-popular search engine; and then Google encouraged visitors to download its own Chrome offering when that became available. These days, though IE still maintains a marketshare of at least 50 percent, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari split up most of the rest on the desktop. (Specifically, the numbers as of March 2013 are 56, 20, 16, and 5 percent for IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, respectively, according to figures from Net Applications.)

On the mobile side, smartphones had a negligible share of overall browser usage until Apple released the iPhone in 2007 with a version of WebKit-based Safari. Android adopted WebKit from the beginning of its development in 2009. The two platforms together account for more than 90 percent of mobile browsing, according to Akamai. The separately available mobile Chrome (based on WebKit) and Opera Mini take most of the remaining share of usage. Opera, which currently has its own engine, said in February 2013 that it would move to WebKit, but then last week amended that plan to adopt Blink instead.

The world today

We're in a world now in which Microsoft's IE (using its little-mentioned Trident engine), Firefox's Gecko, and the Apple-backed WebKit control substantial fiefdoms. Microsoft's desktop dominance continues to erode, however, and it has multiple competitors there. Meanwhile, WebKit may own mobile, but Apple's substantial share (in the form of mobile Safari) doesn't give it absolute power--as the Blink fork shows. And Apple must contend with versions of IE, Firefox, and Chrome on the desktop, where Safari has only a tiny piece of the market.


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